Review: Ann Arbor Art Center's Pop-In

Kickshaw Theatre Pops In at the Ann Arbor Art Center.

Kickshaw Theatre Pops In. Photo by: [http://www.scarterphoto.com/|Sean Carter Photography]

All three floors of the [http://www.annarborartcenter.org/|Ann Arbor Art Center] pulsed with energy Friday night for this summer's inaugural Pop-In event. While the center's programming is generally eclectic on the whole, the free Pop-In series presents a particularly diverse assortment of art and entertainment in a single night, suitable for all ages but particularly aimed at young adults. This Friday's event, curated by Charlie Reischl, was billed as a "digital takeover" of the art center with a variety of offerings related to electronic arts. While some attractions adhered to that theme more than others, the evening was nonetheless consistently stimulating and entertaining in unexpected ways.

Upon entering the art center, [http://www.scratchevents.com/event-dj/scout/|DJ Scout] set the mood on the first floor with some laid-back electronic grooves. Ascending to the second floor, attendees were welcomed by members of [http://www.kickshawtheatre.org/|Kickshaw Theatre], who were recruiting "test subjects" for a short theater piece entitled Technology, In the Flesh. The 15-minute play repeated numerous times throughout the night, as Dr. Tina Burglorgler (Alysia Kolascz) and her assistant Quatthew (Aral Gribble) led audiences through a series of comical "experiments" exploring the differences between our reactions to analog and digital stimuli. In the most entertaining bit, Burglorgler showed the audience several slapstick YouTube videos and then replicated them on Quatthew in some cannily executed bits of stage violence. The differences in audience reaction were striking, as attendees remained mostly straight-faced during the videos but laughed or gasped openly as Burglorgler slammed Quatthew's head into a table and whacked him in the crotch with a baseball bat. The show oversold its point a bit–real-life experiences are consistently more stimulating than digital ones. But it was an amusing, creative second effort from the extremely promising new Kickshaw company, which produced the extraordinary The Electric Baby earlier this year.

Moving up to the third floor, attendees had a wide variety of attractions to explore. Attendees could have a hands-on experience with new technology by experimenting with a sampling of instruments from [http://www.aadl.org/musictools|AADL's music tools collection] or with a Wacom digital drawing tablet (under the able guidance of cartoonist Jerzy Drozd). Wandering into an adjacent darkened room, visitors could also take in a variety of unique musical performances, like the improv duo and art project Efflux. Efflux percussionist Jon Taylor and keyboardist Simon Alexander-Adam riffed wildly on their respective instruments while a custom-built program responded to their music in real time with abstract digital images projected on several small cube-shaped screens. Between the duo's inventive improvisation and the hypnotic digital imagery, Efflux presented a surprisingly spellbinding experience.

The highlight of the evening, however, was a concluding musical performance by members of the unconventional international rap performance collective known as the [http://www.theblackopera.com/|Black Opera]. Ann Arbor rapper [https://www.facebook.com/jamallbufford/|Jamall Bufford] and Detroit rapper [https://magestiklegend.bandcamp.com/|Magestik Legend] kicked things off with what they described as an "opening set" for the Black Opera, energetically encouraging audience participation throughout. The two departed the stage but then returned, clad in oversized masks, to perform as the Black Opera themselves. The duo blasted through an impassioned set of songs with topics ranging from police violence to overuse of social media to the Flint water crisis. Bufford and Legend changed costumes for each song, ranging from dashikis to ski masks, with striking music videos projected behind them. At the conclusion of their performance, the duo announced that they and their entire audience were now part of the Black Opera. While the audience seemed equally divided between those who were previously aware of the Black Opera and those who were initially puzzled by what they were seeing, by the show's end Bufford and Legend had thoroughly accomplished their goal: drawing the crowd into a kind of critical, but positive, musical social movement.

Pop-In will continue this summer with events on July 22 and August 5. The July event will feature an inversion of this past Friday's theme, with an emphasis on analog music, tools, and art. The August installment will split the difference, focusing on the intersection of technology and creativity in a partnership with the new conference [http://www.intermitten.org/|Intermitten]. If Friday's Pop-In is any indication, attendees of the two coming events are in for an eye-opening, thought-provoking, and thoroughly entertaining experience.


Patrick Dunn is an Ann Arbor-based freelance writer whose work appears regularly in Pulp, the Detroit News, the Ann Arbor Observer, and other local publications. He would prefer that you neither slam his head into a table nor whack him in the crotch with a baseball bat, even if it would be funnier than watching a YouTube video.


Pop-In will continue this summer with events on July 22 and August 5.

Review: JR JR comes home, tears it up at Sonic Lunch

REVIEW MUSIC

JR JR will make you jump jump.

JR JR will make you jump jump.

"This is the best I've ever felt playing in Michigan," Josh Epstein beamed toward the end of [http://www.jrjrmusic.com|JR JR]'s set at this Thursday's [http://soniclunch.com|Sonic Lunch] concert in front of Liberty Plaza. Epstein's comment came off far more heartfelt than your average stage banter, not least because he and his band have had plenty of Michigan shows to compare to. Before JR JR built a national fanbase and hit the Billboard charts, they were plain old Dale Earnhardt Jr. Jr. from Royal Oak. Epstein's statement also seemed to reflect the resolution of a more personal struggle, as he noted during the concert that he'd started taking anxiety medication since his last Sonic Lunch appearance. Whatever the case may have been, the upbeat indie-pop band accordingly delivered one of the best sets they've played in Michigan, with high energy flowing from onstage and off.

However, the show got off to an oddly lackluster start. JR JR was preceded by an opening solo set from [https://www.facebook.com/joehawleyjoehawley/?fref=ts|Joe Hawley], best known as the red-tie-clad singer and guitarist of the popular and now defunct Ann Arbor band [http://tallyhall.com|Tally Hall]. Hawley cut a quirky appearance onstage, wearing round mirror sunglasses and bare feet–a reference, he said, to an early gig that Tally Hall played barefoot. The references to his former band didn't stop there, as Hawley meandered through several acoustic Tally Hall covers including "The Bidding," "Hymn for a Scarecrow" and "Variations On a Cloud." Repeatedly noting the "emotional" experience of returning to play in Ann Arbor, Hawley seemed scatterbrained, listlessly letting a few songs trail off midway through. As he fumbled to juggle a kazoo and a bullhorn with his guitar, even fans who'd shown up in Tally Hall T-shirts seemed perplexed.

Although an entire block of Liberty from Division to Fifth was closed for the show, the crowd mostly stayed on Liberty's southern sidewalk to watch Hawley's set. But that changed as soon as Hawley walked off, with the audience flooding into the street to stand at the edge of the stage on the northern side of Liberty. JR JR wasted no time taking the stage to deliver an immediate contrast in tone. Although three of JR JR's members (Epstein, co-frontman Daniel Zott and Bryan Pope) are often behind keyboards, the band's physical energy cannot be contained. Epstein, Zott and Pope writhe to the rhythm when they're on the keys and leap around the stage with almost total abandon when they switch over to guitars. Although drummer Mike Higgins is tied to his stool, he too projects an energy that suggests he'd pick up his kit and dance if he only could.

The band, who have been playing large theaters and major music festivals nationwide for some time now, seemed to enjoy the more intimate, loosey-goosey relationship Sonic Lunch allowed them with their audience. Epstein called up a volunteer from the crowd to hold a cigarette for him to smoke in between lines of the newer cut "James Dean," sarcastically explaining that doing so might help him in his vain quest to be cool.

The show hit its high point with an exuberant rendition of the irresistible "If You Didn't See Me (Then You Weren't On the Dancefloor)." Zott stood right on the edge of the stage to deliver the lead vocal, inciting the audience to dance and finally leaping into the crowd. Zott busted moves on the street with several thoroughly amused concertgoers before climbing back onstage to finish the tune.

The set offered a broad retrospective of JR JR's brief but busy career. The band kicked things off with a spirited rendition of "War Zone," from their 2013 sophomore LP The Speed of Things, and then jumped back to their 2010 EP Horse Power for longtime favorite "Simple Girl." The band's 2015 self-titled LP, the first to bear the new JR JR moniker, was also well represented with tracks including "Gone," "Caroline" and "Break My Fall." JR JR also reached way back for two popular early covers that have largely been retired in more recent years: the Beach Boys' "God Only Knows" and Rodriguez's "I Think of You."

The show marked JR JR's first area performance since their appearance at Sterling Heights' Chill On the Hill festival last September. Epstein, who now lives in Los Angeles, also noted that this was the first time he'd spent a full month in Michigan in over a year. His current extended return is thanks to recording sessions for yet more new music, which the band suggested would be available before the year is out. Whenever JR JR wind up premiering the new tunes live on their home turf, we can only hope they'll be in as good a mood and deliver as much energy as they did at Sonic Lunch on June 23rd. That's going to be a tall order.


Patrick Dunn is an Ann Arbor-based freelance writer whose work appears regularly in Pulp, the Detroit News, the Ann Arbor Observer, and other local publications. If you didn't see him at Sonic Lunch, you weren't on the dancefloor.

Review: Detroit ’67 Thinks Bigger with a Small Setting

REVIEW THEATER & DANCE

Review: Detroit ’67 Thinks Bigger with a Small Setting.

Production photos from the Public Lab production of Detroit ’67.

We usually think of the 1967 Detroit riot in big-picture terms: the 43 killed, the 7,000 arrested, the 2,500 buildings looted or burned, the way the event sparked white flight and economic troubles that continue to affect Detroit today. Given the nearly half-century that’s elapsed since the five-day uprising, it’s not often that we examine the event in any kind of personal way. Playwright (and University of Michigan grad) Dominique Morisseau realizes this and smartly counter-programs against it in her lively drama Detroit ’67. The smartly crafted and performed show bottles up the tension and strife of the riot in a single family’s basement while violence rages outside.

Detroit ’67 focuses on Lank (Amari Cheatom) and Chelle (Michelle Wilson), a brother and sister who run a dance club in the basement of their recently deceased parents’ Detroit home. Chelle’s levelheaded practicality often conflicts with Lank’s aspirations for the siblings to rise above their modest social status and open a proper bar, and the siblings’ outrageous friends Sly (Brian Marable) and Bunny (Jessica Frances Dukes) only stir the pot. Lank’s plot to purchase a neighborhood bar is derailed when he impulsively brings home Caroline, a badly injured woman (Sarah Nealis) who begs Lank’s help. Caroline, who is white, ignites a powderkeg of anxiety amongst the otherwise African-American characters–and that’s before the streets outside even start to burn.

The production is hauntingly intimate, never once showing us what’s going on outside but vividly demonstrating the way it affects our very small cast of characters. The most unexpectedly crucial element in this production by Baltimore’s Center Stage theater company, presented here by special arrangement with the Detroit Public Theatre, is the painstakingly detailed set. Scenic designer Michael Carnahan crafts an onstage basement that will be completely familiar to any Midwesterner, from the cinder-block walls to the chest freezer to the canned goods stored in the rafters. The period details, too, are impressive. Family photos hang alongside a vintage Tigers pennant, a photo of Malcolm X, and a [:http://i.imgur.com/jf7QueS.jpg|World War II-era poster of Joe Louis] which declares, "We're going to do our part...and we'll win because we're on God's side."

There’s an unquestionable veracity to the setting, and it heightens the actors’ achingly real performances. Whenever Wilson, Cheatom, Marable, and Dukes are onstage, there’s a completely genuine feeling of family between them. The actors breathe life into Morisseau’s already naturalistic dialogue, underpinning even the scenes of high conflict between their characters with warmth and love. Dukes and Marable slowly round out characters that initially seem to be mere comic relief, playing beautifully whether they’re delivering one-liners or tackling scenes of much more gravity. Cheatom has poise and grace as Lank, neatly underplaying the boiling frustration that feeds his character’s optimism. But Wilson is the true MVP of this cast, giving a deeply-felt lead performance that registers with absolute authenticity in every moment. In the play’s dialogue-free final moments, Wilson’s face summons decades of hope, happiness, and heartbreak in the incredibly affecting climax to a masterful performance.

The production’s weaker points are those where it tries too hard to drive already clear points home, ranging from smaller issues of character to larger ones of theme. Nealis’ Caroline never quite connects as a real character, partly because of the actress’ stagier performance and partly because director Kamilah Forbes blocks Nealis in almost constant motion. Forbes attempts to demonstrate the character’s skittishness, but Caroline comes off as too mercurial and unnatural as a result. Similarly, Morisseau occasionally goes a little too far in blatantly pointing out some of the broader themes of her story. And while the parallels between the Detroit riot and recent protests against police violence in Baltimore and Ferguson, Mo., are already all too clear, the production’s brief usage of projected footage from very recent news events borders on crass.

These are smaller problems, but they become more conspicuous because the show is otherwise so successful in what it sets out to do. It narrows our view of the riot to five characters in one basement, but in doing so makes the historical event–and the contemporary social problems that echo it–breathtakingly relatable. It rejects the big-picture view of the riot, but theatergoers–particularly white, middle- or upper-class theatergoers like this reviewer–will walk away with a much deeper understanding of the event. The fledgling Detroit Public Theatre has closed an impressive inaugural season with this show, and it could scarcely be more appropriate as a simultaneous tribute to Detroit and critique of long-running social issues here and throughout the nation.


Patrick Dunn is an Ann Arbor-based freelance writer whose work appears regularly in the Detroit News, the Ann Arbor Observer.


Detroit ’67 will run through June 5 at the Max M. Fisher Music Center’s Allesee Hall. Tickets are available [:https://www.dso.org/ShowEventsView.aspx?id=2772&prod=2756&AspxAutoDetec…], by calling (313)576-5111, and at the Box Office before the performance.

The Ragbirds Grow Up and Get Stronger With 'The Threshold and the Hearth'

REVIEW MUSIC

The Ragbirds Grow Up and Get Stronger With 'The Threshold and the Hearth'.

Today is a good time to begin listening to the Ragbirds' new album, The Threshold and the Hearth.

The easy sound byte about the [a:ragbirds|Ragbirds’] new album, The Threshold and the Hearth, is that it’s the Ann Arbor folk band’s first release since band cofounders Erin Zindle and Randall Moore had their first child. One might expect more than a couple dewy-eyed reflections on new parenthood, if not an album full of them, but the Ragbirds seem to have their eyes set on bigger things. Structured as a loose concept album about the ups and downs of a fictional couple’s relationship, The Threshold and the Hearth is certainly informed by a newfound sense of wisdom and maturity, but it’s not obsessed with the personal particulars of Zindle and Moore’s very recently changed lives.

In fact, if you’re going to read anything too personal into the album, Zindle kicks things off by asserting her status as an inveterate musician, unchanged by the years. “I was born in a lemon grove with a fiddle / Not a stitch of clothes,” she sings in opening track “Lemon Grove,” naturally backed by a jaunty and immediately catchy plucked fiddle riff. The track builds beautifully, eventually incorporating a rollicking drumbeat, harmonies, and a fiddle solo. For those who know the band, the tune is classic Ragbirds: upbeat folk, in the sense that it features some acoustic, traditionally Appalachian instrumentation and because the music industry requires an easy genre tag for the sound. But otherwise it’s the wholly unique product of Zindle’s world-spanning blend of musical influences and her pop sensibility for a great hook.

Zindle stretches that sound even more as The Threshold and the Hearth goes on. “Cosmos,” with its charming lyric setting up the album’s central relationship between “a cosmologist and a cosmetologist drinking cosmos at the club,” has a funky little guitar and bass riff. “The Curse of Finger Pointing” makes lovely use of kalimba and some African-inspired percussion for a sound straight out of the Paul Simon playbook. And on “Strange Weather” Zindle quietly pours her heart out over a minor-key piano ballad.

This mélange of sounds highlights Zindle’s adaptability and adventurousness as a songwriter, and her lyrics display similar range. Over their decade in action, the Ragbirds have made their name on being mostly a feel-good kind of band, but Zindle contextualizes that positivity more on The Threshold and the Hearth. In “Good Time To Be Born,” Zindle crafts a nicely detailed interaction between a cynical man and a harried young woman in line at a grocery store checkout lane. With empathy for both her characters, she admits “There is always peace, there is always war” while asserting that “Today is a good time to be born / Today is a good time to begin.” And on “Sometimes Honestly” she sings, “I believe in optimism / Secretly I still expect the worst.”

The album’s most downbeat cut, the beautiful “Strange Weather,” chronicles the low point in the record’s central relationship. But even amongst doom-laden imagery, Zindle conjures hope. “If I build a fire to melt the frost / If you stop the winds before they gust / We can save our love before it’s lost / Before we become just rubble and dust,” she sings. The tune ends on an unexpected major chord. While she may be positive-minded, Zindle’s certainly not wearing rose-colored glasses. Her songwriting here reflects a thoughtful adult perspective on love and life that uses hope as a weapon to cut through the rough stuff.

Beyond the band’s songcraft, musicianship on The Threshold and the Hearth is excellent as well. Zindle’s dusky voice is expressive and engaging as ever, although it’s impossible to ignore the equivalent personality she puts across through her fiddle work. Zindle’s brother T.J. is also a standout here, lending warm, occasionally jazz-inflected guitar licks to songs like “Tough Love” and “On Your Side.” Bassist Dan Jones subtly lends weight to a few of the fiddle riffs, harmonizing with Zindle, and Jon Brown and Moore fill out the sound with a versatile complement of percussion.

The Threshold and the Hearth garnered a newfound national distribution push from the Ragbirds’ signing with Rock Ridge Music, and the band enlisted the producing talents of Grammy-nominated R.E.M. and Ryan Adams collaborator Jamie Candiloro for the record. Those decisions seem to have paid off well for the band, as The Threshold and the Hearth debuted at No. 20 on Billboard’s folk chart. And rightfully so. It’s a pleasure to see this band growing up and just getting better, stronger, and smarter with age.


Patrick Dunn is an Ann Arbor-based freelance writer whose work appears regularly in the Detroit News, the Ann Arbor Observer, and other local publications. He also believes in optimism, but secretly expects the worst.


The Threshold and the Hearth is now available in physical form at the Ragbirds’ [http://stores.portmerch.com/theragbirds/music.html|online store] and in digital form on major streaming services.

Review: Irrational, Theatre Nova

REVIEW THEATER & DANCE

Don't believe the hypotenuse in Theatre Nova's Irrational.

Don't believe the hypotenuse in Theatre Nova's Irrational.

You don’t get much quirkier than the concept for Theatre Nova’s new production [http://www.theatrenova.org/#!home/cktu|Irrational], a rock musical about ancient Greek mathematicians. The show by Ann Arborites David Wells and R. MacKenzie Lewis follows the con man Hippasus (Sebastian Gerstner) as he attempts to ingratiate himself with the powerful cult leader Pythagoras (Elliot Styles). But Hippasus’ plan to use his newfound social stature to win the beautiful Eloris’ (Tara Tomcsik) hand in marriage–and more importantly, her wealth–goes pear-shaped when Hippasus inadvertently introduces the concept of irrational numbers into Pythagoras’ ratio-obsessed sect.

It’s a rather bizarre story at face value, even more so given that it’s at least somewhat based in historical record. Pythagoras, namesake of the famous theorem, did in fact lead a movement known as Pythagoreanism, and legend has it that he also had a man named Hippasus put to death for introducing the concept of irrational numbers. Wells takes this odd bit of mathematical lore and thoroughly has his way with it, adding a number of third-act twists and fleshing out a love triangle between Hippasus, Eloris, and the forthright Pythagorean Theodusa (Emily Brett).

The strongest moments in this unusual riff on ancient history are consistently those involving Styles’ Pythagoras. Styles, only two years into his musical theater studies at the University of Michigan, is the play’s comic center of gravity. Clad in white plastic-framed glasses and a flowing white tunic and pants, Styles fully grasps the humor inherent in his nerd rockstar character and plays it for all it's worth. He has the grace to pull off a few surprising physical stunts, the presence to fully project Pythagoras’ bluster, and vocal chops that even extend to pulling off a well-placed rap in Pythagoras’ self-aggrandizing showstopper “Mononymous.” The character is over-the-top, of course, but with Styles in the role you won’t doubt Pythagoras’ power for a second.

Styles is helped along by a generally well-used Greek chorus, an entertainingly sassy trio of gamblers played by Anna Marck, Esther Jentzen and Emily Manuell. The three harmonize beautifully and frequently pump up the humor of Pythagoras’ numbers with fawning girl-group backup vocals and a smattering of hip-hop dance moves. Wells overuses the trio for exposition, however, as the chorus repeatedly re-explains plot developments made perfectly clear in song moments before.

Tomcsik is a sly supporting player, punching up several laugh lines that are good on paper but surprisingly hilarious thanks to her delivery. Brett puts considerable physical energy into her performance, if not quite the inner confidence that her character is written with, and Matthew Pecek is amusingly game as a disenfranchised Pythagorean. Gerstner, however, doesn't quite match the personality and comic energy summoned by Styles, Tomcsik and other costars. Hippasus ought to be at least Pythagoras’ equal in charisma, but the character never quite pops.

That probably has something to do with the fact that Wells and Lewis seem to inject the lion’s share of their creative energy into pretty much everything except Hippasus. We never quite get a sense of our leading man from square one, and his crucial relationship with Eloris is established in a single musical number that isn’t enough to sell us on her connection to him.

Lewis’ score may be at its best when Pythagoras and the chorus are involved, but it’s consistently strong throughout the play. Lewis’ songs are excellent, mostly traditional show-tune stuff with bits and pieces of funk, R&B, and rock thrown in to lively effect. His work here is sometimes quite complex, with some of the group numbers featuring accomplished use of counterpoint and harmony. The tunes are thoroughly catchy and you’re likely to walk out of the show with at least one of them stuck in your head.

Perhaps the most ambitious task Irrational sets itself is pulling off a full-fledged musical in Theatre Nova’s extremely intimate stomping grounds at the Yellow Barn. Director Carla Milarch makes the best possible use of the theater’s small thrust stage, successfully blocking the actors to play to audience members on all three sides of the sparse set and choreographing to the greatest extent that the space allows. But there’s simply no room for a live band in this setting, which is something of a shame given how good Lewis’ score is. On opening night the prerecorded score seemed surprisingly quiet; the coming performances of the show would be served well by cranking up the volume and letting the music soar a little more.

Irrational is far from a perfect production, but it certainly doesn’t lack for creativity, originality, or enthusiasm. Wells and Lewis deserve major props for conceiving such a singular idea, and Milarch deserves the same for her efforts to bring it to life in this challenging space. The Irrational team did two years of workshopping to get the show to this point, and it’s easy to see something truly great emerging with a bit more refinement.

We’re fortunate to have creative minds in town coming up with big, crazy, fun ideas like Irrational, and even more fortunate to have an outfit like Theatre Nova that’s willing to realize those ideas onstage with professional craft. Although it has its flaws, Irrational is a lot of fun and it deserves the attendance to prompt the additional development that a second (or third or fourth) staging might bring. Where else are you going to see a rock musical about ancient Greek mathematicians?


Patrick Dunn is an Ann Arbor-based freelance writer whose work appears regularly in the Detroit News, the Ann Arbor Observer, and other local publications. Like Pythagoras (or Prince), he intends to one day be known by just one name.


Irrational runs April 22 through May 15 at the Yellow Barn, 415 W Huron St. Tickets are $20 and showtimes are 8 pm Thursday, Friday, and Saturday; and 2 pm Sundays.

Review: Starling Electric Makes a Welcome Return With Electric Company

REVIEW MUSIC

Hey you guys! Starling Electric brings you the power in their new album, Electric Company.

Hey you guys! Starling Electric brings you the power in their new album, Electric Company.

It’s been a while since the world has heard from Ann Arbor’s foremost purveyors of throwback power-pop, [https://www.facebook.com/starlingelectric/|Starling Electric]. Originating in 1997 as frontman and songwriter Caleb Dillon’s solo project, Starling eventually grew into a full-fledged band, releasing debut album [http://www.aadl.org/catalog/record/1276751|Clouded Staircase] in 2006. The band’s psych-tinged jangle-pop drew accolades from national notables like Guided By Voices and the Posies, and Starling became something of a live staple in Ann Arbor and Ypsi. But the band essentially disappeared from the public eye in 2014, when Dillon left Ann Arbor to travel the country for a bit. Fortunately, however, Dillon has returned to Michigan. And with his return comes the long-awaited release of a new Starling record, Electric Company, which has been in the works since 2010.

From track one of Electric Company, it’s an immediate relief to have Starling back in action. Album opener “No Clear Winner” announces itself with the sound of a needle drop and four blaring, distorted guitar chords backed by John Fossum’s majestic drums. Dillon structures the main body of the song in classic Pixies fashion. A quiet verse backed by acoustic guitar and synth accents repeatedly builds to a driving, anthemic chorus. “I don’t know what I control / I don’t know what I can hold,” Dillon sings, articulating themes of uncertainty that have the slightly more graceful feel of willing surrender when backed with music this contagiously bombastic. Dillon cheekily describes the album as “powerless pop,” and the wordplay fits.

Elsewhere, “Permanent Vacation” will burrow itself right into your eardrum and refuse to vacate your brain within five seconds of deploying its simple, catchy opening rhythm guitar riff. If there’s a single on the album, this is it; the bright, polished production and chug-a-lugging rhythm make it one of those songs that demand to be blasted with the windows down on a warm-weather road trip. Another highlight, “Jailbird Joey,” embraces somewhat sludgier production, with Christian Blackmore Anderson’s lumbering bass dominating in the mix. Dillon particularly shows his talent for orchestration on the propulsive closer “Start Again,” which interweaves trumpet, piano, mellotron-generated woodwinds, and some jazzy guitar lines to gorgeous effect.

The centerpiece of the album–both figuratively and literally, at track eight of 16–is “Jesus Loves the Byrds,” a brief but stunning tribute to one of Dillon’s foremost musical influences. The instrumentation on the downtempo tune is simple, but a wistful acoustic guitar arrangement and the quintet’s lush harmony backup vocals make a stellar combination. As Dillon drops lyrical references to “Eight Miles High” and “Turn! Turn! Turn!” (and likely makes a cheeky reference to the Byrds’ cover of “The Christian Life” in the title), it’s easy to slip into the same reverent, borderline-religious mood with which Dillon seems to approach the Byrds.

However, outside of that one unabashed paean to Starling’s influences, Dillon doesn’t wear his muses on his sleeve as much as usual on Electric Company. Where Clouded Staircase so often sounded like a mixture of lost tracks from the Byrds and Guided By Voices themselves, on Electric Company Dillon has developed a clearer authorial voice. He still loves the Byrds’ riffs, the Zombies’ chamber-pop arrangements, the Beach Boys’ harmonies, and Guided By Voices’ maddeningly succinct lo-fi pop genius. But on Electric Company Dillon synthesizes those top-flight guiding lights into something that’s more distinctly his own. It’ll be fascinating to see where he goes next, but hopefully the wait will be less than a decade this time.


Patrick Dunn is an Ann Arbor-based freelance writer whose work appears regularly in the Detroit News, the Ann Arbor Observer, and other local publications. He prefers his pop with at least a little jangle in it.


Electric Company will be available April 15 on Starling Electric’s [https://starlingelectric.bandcamp.com/|Bandcamp] and major streaming services.

Review: Sci-Fi Film 'Midnight Special' Is as Subtle as It Is Breathtaking

REVIEW FILM & VIDEO

Midnight Special is now playing in select theaters.

Midnight Special is now playing in select theaters including Rave Cinemas Ann Arbor and Quality 16.

The highly unconventional sci-fi film [http://www.midnightspecialmovie.com/|Midnight Special] opened in most theaters nationwide this past weekend, coinciding with the opening of another highly unconventional sci-fi film, the ultraviolent “first-person shooter” [http://www.rogerebert.com/reviews/hardcore-henry-2016|Hardcore Henry]. The two films could hardly have been marketed more differently. Hardcore Henry has been widely promoted, preceded by opening-night “Ultimate Fan Events” (can a movie no one has seen yet even have ultimate fans?), while Midnight Special has hardly been marketed at all. The Henry marketing team seems out to convince the world that the next cult classic is upon us. This may well be true; I haven’t seen it yet. And although I expect to have a blast when I do, I doubt extremely that it will even begin to hold a candle to the singularly awe-inspiring experience writer-director Jeff Nichols has crafted in Midnight Special.

The film follows a father, Roy (Michael Shannon), and his son, Alton (Jaeden Lieberher), who possesses bizarre powers. The boy can communicate with electronics in eerie ways and occasionally undergoes episodes during which his eyes glow and he communicates mysterious information to those who gaze back at him. However, due to his condition he can’t be outside during the daylight, leading Roy and his companion Lucas (Joel Edgerton) to transport Alton only by night. The already harrowing situation is compounded by the fact that our protagonists are on the run–from the FBI, the NSA, and a Mennonite-esque religious sect who consider Alton the imminent instrument of their salvation.

The less said about the film’s plot, beyond the above summary, the better – and to some degree, even that brief description almost gives too much away. That’s because one of the key drivers behind Nichols’ story is uncertainty. We’re thrown into the narrative and allowed to figure things out on our own. There is exposition, but it’s doled out slowly and naturally as the characters converse. We’re often forced to draw our own conclusions in the moment until a better answer comes along, both about smaller plot concerns as well as the overarching question of whether Alton is an alien, a religious savior, or just a freak.

However, thanks to Nichols’ excellent direction of a strong cast, the nature of the relationships between the characters is never in question. Shannon, best known for colorful performances in films like Revolutionary Road, Man of Steel, and Nichols’ own Take Shelter, here underplays to extraordinary effect. Roy’s all-consuming love for Alton is right there in Shannon’s eyes from frame one, to the extent that Shannon probably could have made this movie work just fine without a word of dialogue. Lieberher gives an excellent performance, precocious by the nature of his character but never showy or unnatural. Edgerton and particularly Kirsten Dunst are also terrific in their supporting roles. Everyone in the film is cast in a resolutely unglamorous role, forced to prioritize emotion over ego, and they rise to the challenge to tell a powerful story.

“Unglamorous” is a good word to describe Nichols’ vision overall. He summons the steamy Texas and Louisiana backwaters the characters speed through with such accuracy one can almost feel the humidity in the air. His pacing and tone are perfectly pitched, masterfully juggling the tension of the chase with graceful scenes of familial tenderness among the protagonists. And – oh yes – this is a sci-fi movie, and there are some spine-tingling supernatural moments rendered with judicious use of CGI. But unlike Christopher Nolan, whose genre films effectively crank both family drama and visual spectacle to the max, Nichols dials back and lets the audience lean in a bit to embrace a sense of wonder instead of bombarding us with emotional and sensual stimulus.

The cumulative effect is extraordinary, building to a protracted, breathtakingly beautiful climax that brought tears to the eyes of even this usually stoic moviegoer. One wonders what Nichols might do with a budget bigger than Midnight Special’s modest $18 million, but hopefully the director’s marvelous restraint isn’t just a product of financial necessity. However, the film's relatively low profile compared to Hardcore Henry, its main genre competitor this weekend, is likely a more direct result of budgeting. And that’s a shame, because it seems likely that Midnight Special will remain a lot more compelling a decade or two from now than Henry’s admittedly audacious technological gimmick. Midnight Special’s greatest strength is its humility, its unassuming and unpretentious genius. Here’s hoping that doesn’t hold it back from well-deserved recognition as one of 2016’s very best films.


Patrick Dunn is an Ann Arbor-based freelance writer whose work appears regularly in the Detroit News, the Ann Arbor Observer, and other local publications. He can be heard most Friday mornings at 8:40 am on the Martin Bandyke morning program on Ann Arbor's 107one.


"Midnight Special" is now playing in select theaters including [http://www.cinemark.com/theatre-detail.aspx?node_id=83852&|Rave Cinemas Ann Arbor] and [http://www.cinemark.com/theatre-detail.aspx?node_id=83852&|Quality 16]. Check theater's websites for showtimes.

Review: Penny Stamps Presents David OReilly

REVIEW FILM & VIDEO

David OReilly delivering his Penny Stamps lecture as part of the 54th Ann Arbor Film Festival.

David OReilly delivering his Penny Stamps lecture as part of the 54th Ann Arbor Film Festival. / Photo by [http://www.dougcoombe.com|Doug Coombe]

Artist David OReilly has worked in a variety of media from film to video games to concept art, but he added a new medium to that list Wednesday night at the Michigan Theater: public speaking. OReilly appeared as part of the [http://stamps.umich.edu/stamps|Penny Stamps Speaker Series], presented in conjunction with the [http://www.aafilmfest.org/|54th Ann Arbor Film Festival]. Taking the stage after an introduction he self-deprecatingly described as “hyperbolic,” OReilly immediately sought to manage his audience’s expectations. “I don’t know how to follow that up,” OReilly said. “This is going to be a total letdown.”

However, OReilly proved himself a more than capable speaker over the course of his nearly 90-minute presentation, entertaining, inspiring, and at times genuinely dazzling the crowd. OReilly began by examining how he developed his unique style of 3D animation, which he’s now best known for. After early attempts to emulate Austrian artist [w:Egon Schiele|Egon Schiele]’s expressive figure drawings, OReilly became involved in animation through a job as a concept artist. Around 2004 he became fascinated by the untapped potential he saw in 3D animation, a field dominated at the time by many Pixar imitators and very few individual auteurs. OReilly described working with 3D animation software as “a constant process of the thing falling apart,” and early on he started maintaining a computer folder of the various glitches that resulted from his experiments. “All of these felt like something the software wanted to do, the trajectory of what it wanted to do,” he said.

So OReilly developed an artistic style that welcomed the quirks of his medium and drew attention to its rougher edges, rather than hewing towards a perfectly polished finished product. He demonstrated the evolution of that style from his 2007 debut short film [https://vimeo.com/62087014|RGB XYZ] to 2009’s [https://vimeo.com/3388129|Please Say Something]. OReilly described the former, an extremely glitchy acid-trip tale of a creature moving to the big city, as “pretty awful.” But the latter showed just how quickly OReilly developed his talent. Please Say Something, a very funny and surprisingly affecting tale of a tumultuous marriage between a cat and a mouse, embraces those glitches and rough edges with intent and artistry.

OReilly has since done a variety of work, including an episode of Cartoon Network’s [http://www.davidoreilly.com/projects/adventure-time/|Adventure Time], animated segments of the movies [http://www.davidoreilly.com/projects/her/|Her] and [https://vimeo.com/4167091|Son of Rambow], and [https://vimeo.com/5699275|music videos for U2] and [http://www.davidoreilly.com/projects/mia-visuals/|M.I.A]. In between commercial works he’s also found time for more personal projects–like his 2014 video game Mountain, which creates a personalized mountain on which players can watch slow and often surreal changes in real time. Typical of his unpretentious presentation, OReilly said he enjoys commercial work as much as his pet projects. “I don’t know if it’s ideal if I just stayed doing my own stuff,” he said. “Every time I do a job I end up getting out of my comfort zone, being forced to learn stuff that I’m not familiar with.”

OReilly saved his best for last, presenting an extended demo of his forthcoming video game entitled Everything. The game presents a universe in which one can play as literally anything. OReilly began by exploring a sunny field in the character of a bear, which moved around by comically rolling head over tail. From there he jumped into the characters of a clump of grass, bouncing along at ground level, and then a Douglas fir, which moved majestically over the landscape. Those demonstrations were entertaining, but OReilly had only scratched the surface of the world he’d developed for the game. He jumped down to a smaller scale to explore the microscopic world between blades of grass, playing as various molecules and germs. The audience broke into applause, but OReilly still wasn’t even close to finished. Taking a trip to the other end of the cosmic scale, he played as a continent swimming around the earth, then an asteroid orbiting the planet, then as a galaxy spinning in space. Surrounded by other glittering galaxies, OReilly’s galaxy joined up with them and moved in a rhythmic “dance” as numerous audience members uttered audible gasps of wonder.

Those gasps, and the laughter and applause that permeated the presentation, were proof positive that OReilly has repeatedly hit on something singular, accessible, and human in his highly unconventional works. Refreshingly, the man behind them was consistently, exceedingly humble. OReilly closed by noting with some bewilderment that he’d been asked to address in his presentation how his work “fits into the bigger picture of humanity.” He tackled that request by reading a scathing critical review of Mountain, followed by a letter he received from a mother who thanked him for the way the game had drawn her autistic son out of his shell. “That kind of response is worth more than all of the impact in the world,” he said. “I feel very privileged to get to have that effect, as small as that is.”


Patrick Dunn is an Ann Arbor-based freelance writer whose work appears regularly in the Detroit News, the Ann Arbor Observer, and other local publications. He can be heard most Friday mornings at 8:40 am on the Martin Bandyke morning program on Ann Arbor's 107one.

Review: Third Coast Kings Rule at Ferndale’s Magic Bag

REVIEW MUSIC

The Ann Arbor-based funk ensemble Third Coast Kings.

The Ann Arbor-based funk ensemble Third Coast Kings.

Ann Arbor-based funk ensemble [http://www.thirdcoastkings.com|Third Coast Kings] were off their home turf in their Friday night show at Ferndale’s [http://www.themagicbag.com|Magic Bag], but that didn’t stop the group lighting the stage and the dance floor on fire with material new and old.

Friday’s show marked something of a return for the Kings, who are just resurfacing on the local scene after an injury last year left high-energy frontman Sean Ike limping and relying on a cane. But the band used its brief off-time to put together some new tunes with an eye towards hitting the studio later this year, and they worked out some of that new material at the Magic Bag. The Kings performed some tunes for only the first or second time live, but delivered them with confidence–no surprise for this tight group of professionals. Among the new material, one minor-key groove came off particularly well, with a fiery trumpet solo from Ryan Dolan that had the audience howling its approval.

The Kings made plenty of time, though, for favorite tunes from their previous releases, including a number of tracks from their 2014 album [https://thirdcoastkings.bandcamp.com/album/west-grand-boulevard-2|West Grand Boulevard]. Alec Cooper’s menacing baritone-sax groove in “Sporting Life (I’m a Man)” inspired Ike to mix some comical boxing and rowing moves into his dance routine. “Birds and Bees” found the Kings settling into a rare slower jam, with guitarist Andy Filisko laying down a wonderfully warm wash of wah-wah-laden rhythm work. And although the band faked an exit after playing the dance-floor call to arms “Get Some, Leave Some,” the exceptionally charged-up rendition of that tune certainly could have passed for a satisfactory show closer.

It’s impossible to talk about this band without recognizing the near-superhuman contributions of Ike, perhaps the best–and undoubtedly the most entertaining–frontman Ann Arbor has to offer. In distinct contrast to his bandmates’ tan and gray suits and vests, Ike was clad in a red satin vest and gold tie over black pants and shirt, the band’s unmissable focal point. Within three songs his bald pate was covered in a sheen of sweat as he pranced, danced, and shook a tambourine like it owed him money. “This is the only Friday night we got and we got it here together,” Ike proclaimed early on, and from the energy he put into the performance it seemed he believed that. With a killer voice, unflagging energy, and a strong sense of visual pizzazz, Ike could go toe to toe with James Brown in just about every department except ego.

While it’s hard to take your eyes off Ike during a Kings show, ample credit is also due to the exemplary outfit backing him up. At six, the current Kings lineup is a bit smaller than it’s been in the past, but the band’s sound is powerful as ever. Although they’re only two men, Cooper and Dolan make for a robust horn section. Dolan handles most of the leads with a laid-back, jazz-inspired style that cuts a nice contrast to even the Kings’ most furious grooves. While the horn players make a rather cool, impassive duo onstage, the guitar-slingers on the other side of Ike are all goofy energy. Bouncing enthusiastically as his mop of curly hair sways back and forth, Steve Barker lays down rock-solid grooves on the bass. Filisko mugs and dances as he carves up slice after slice of wah-drenched guitar. Perhaps the least showy player–and, at the back of the stage behind Ike, the least visible–is drummer James Keovongsak. He isn’t much for solos. But rhythm is the essential element of what this band does, and Keovongsak handles that with unflappable precision.

The crowd at the Magic Bag demonstrated abundant appreciation for the Kings’ work Friday night. Although not sold out, the venue welcomed a sizeable crowd that spanned an impressive range of ages and races. It took a surprisingly long time–two whole songs!–for the dance floor to really fill up, but once the crowd got going they were loath to stop. Ike’s departure from the stage after delivering a few a cappella bars of Marvin Gaye’s “Got to Give it Up” drew raucous screams of “One more song!” The audience seemed to take Ike’s proclamation of “the only Friday night” seriously–and with a band this committed to having a good time, how could they not?


Patrick Dunn is an Ann Arbor-based freelance writer whose work appears regularly in the Detroit News, the Ann Arbor Observer, and other local publications. He can be heard most Friday mornings at 8:40 am on the Martin Bandyke morning program on Ann Arbor's 107one.

Review: The Witch

REVIEW FILM & VIDEO

Anya Taylor-Joy in her breakthrough performance in The Witch.

Anya Taylor-Joy in her breakthrough performance in The Witch.

Like most great horror movies, [http://thewitch-movie.com|The Witch] is smart enough to largely dispense with the “rules” of its genre. We see the film’s titular boogeywoman early on and with some clarity; we’re then led to believe that she may even be somewhat incidental to the plot, and that the true evil may be inside one of our seeming protagonists. There’s little gore and very little in the way of traditional “jump scares”–at least until it’s too late for The Witch to present itself as the kind of movie which traffics in such gimmicks. Instead of trying to engineer a shock-delivery system, The Witch opts for a slow-burning sense of dread echoing other great, unconventional horror flicks like [http://www.aadl.org/catalog/record/1339739|Repulsion] or [http://www.aadl.org/catalog/record/1326201|The Shining].

The film is set in 1630 New England, as a family of seven is exiled from their Puritan colony for vaguely defined reasons related to the father’s (Ralph Ineson) “prideful” approach to spreading the word of God. The father, William, leads his brood to a spot just at the edge of a dark and expansive woodland and they begin to establish a homestead. Again neglecting typical genre practice, The Witch doesn’t allow us that typical dull period of calm when you’re waiting for the first scare to happen; we’re barely five minutes into the film before the newborn of the family vanishes during a game of peekaboo with capable teenaged daughter Thomasin (Anya Taylor-Joy). Cut to the unsettlingly premature appearance of the decaying witch (Bathsheba Garnett) in her hut, performing some unholy ritual over the infant.

But is she the witch? Our highly superstitious protagonists immediately begin to suspect and accuse each other of being responsible for the baby’s disappearance, as well as the string of other misfortunes that begin to befall their settlement. And it’s hard for us to blame them. There seems to be some kind of evil in just about every member of this family–from the young twins (Ellie Grainger and Lucas Dawson), who openly converse with a goat they call “Black Phillip,” to William himself, whose determination to make the new homestead succeed verges on the deranged.

The small cast is uniformly excellent, convincingly wrapping their tongues around the knotty period dialogue. Ineson exerts a terrific gravitational pull as the all-powerful father slowly losing his grip, and Taylor-Joy gives a fierce, sympathetic performance as she becomes the film’s ostensible lead. The performers expertly craft a growing sense of hysteria that piles up into a final half-hour of protractedly spine-tingling scenes.

Production designer Craig Lathrop and costume designer Linda Muir work hard to create an authentic period atmosphere that makes the family’s dogmatic mania all the more believable. Although the vast majority of the film takes place in isolation on the family’s homestead, brief glimpses of their old colony at the beginning of the film have the fascinating feel of real life. First-time feature director Robert Eggers and cinematographer Jarin Blaschke collaborate to create a striking visual sense for the proceedings. Cloudy skies are omnipresent in the film’s many exterior scenes, and the color palette emphasizes grays and browns that feel earthy even as they seem to forebode decay and death.

And that’s appropriate, because The Witch is a film about people deeply connected to the earth, dependent upon it, but also fighting against their true nature. At one point the mother, Kate (Kate Dickie), emphatically expresses her wish that the family had never left their native England. For all William’s professed desire to serve God, he’s consistently ignorant of the universe’s signs that he’s doing the wrong thing. The presence, and possible wrath, of Native Americans hovers around the story as well. Local natives are seen for a fleeting but significant moment in an early scene, and a trade William made with them becomes a point of some contention among the family later in the story.

It’s easy to try to read The Witch as a theological text on the relative merits of the Christian God and Satan; the New York-based Satanic Temple, which has wholeheartedly endorsed the film, certainly seems to think so. But no. The film is about invaders trying to impose their will upon a land that was never theirs, and the land taking its own back. The Witch suggests a fundamental sin at the root of American history. Even more so than the standard genre tropes of a cabin at the edge of a creepy woods, or the old standby of God versus the devil, there’s true horror in that idea for any American.


Patrick Dunn is an Ann Arbor-based freelance writer whose work appears regularly in the Detroit News, the Ann Arbor Observer, and other local publications. He can be heard most Friday mornings at 8:40 am on the Martin Bandyke morning program on Ann Arbor's 107one.


The Witch opens in wide release this weekend.